4 Reasons Why Physical Activity Boosts Your Child’s Brain

Think about your child’s “to-do list” on any given day: school is a constant, and possibly homework, lessons, and after-school classes. Your child might add things like playing video games or YouTube surfing. But what about physical activity? Does exercise fit somewhere into your child’s day? 

Today, more than ever before, it is pretty easy for children to be sedentary. Sure, children love to play at recess, but beyond that, it is often difficult for children to get enough physical activity into their day. Pressures from school and higher-level academic work often push physical pursuits to the bottom of the daily schedule. 

What if physical activity wasn’t just for recess? What if getting physically active could help children’s brains and even improve their academic performance? New insights into the link between the body and the brain give us more reasons to encourage our children to “get physical.”

Physical Activity Helps Children Do Better Academically

Although it may seem counterintuitive, there is quite a lot of evidence linking children’s physical activity to better academic performance. One study of an intervention among teens found that increasing physical activity by 120 minutes per week was linked to improved performance in both numeracy and reading

Given this research, it’s common for parents to ask why such a link might exist. How does physical activity help support a child’s academic performance? Aren’t academics all about the brain? Why is the physical activity of the body important?

Another study helps illuminate the answers. In this longitudinal study, physical activity was also linked to better academic performance. However, one key finding was that the reason for the improved academic performance had to do with children’s improved emotional regulation. In other words, increased physical activity seems to help improve children’s academic performance because it aids their emotional regulation skills. This clearly illustrates the interconnected nature of children’s development. Children are better able to manage their emotions when they have opportunities for physical exercise. The ability to regulate their emotions, therefore makes it possible for them to perform better on academic measures.

Physical Activity Helps Keep Children On-Task

Some elementary school teachers use physical activity in their classrooms with an idea called “brain breaks.” These short, active breaks provide children with a chance to move their bodies and change their physical position from sitting to standing, stepping, or jumping. Although short, these breaks have been shown to improve children’s on-task behavior. In one study, children who experienced these breaks were found to be on-task more of the time than children who did not have such breaks

Again, parents may wonder why these short physical activity breaks are helpful for children’s brains and behavior. Researchers suggest that the benefit of these breaks results from a decrease in children’s time sitting. With less class time sitting, children were able to show better response inhibition via a change in sitting and standing time. That is, children were better able to suppress actions that did not fit with the goals of the situation (e.g., off-task behavior). 

Although active “brain breaks” take time away from academic lessons, ultimately, they seem to provide children with an easy way to stay on-task and focus their minds on learning.

Active Learning Means Better Learning 

Up to now, we have focused on the benefits of physical activity that are separate from or provide breaks from formal learning activities. What if, however, physical activity was built into the learning activities themselves? This may seem like a novel (or even impossible) concept to some, but more teachers are developing innovative ways to incorporate physical activity into their lessons. The preliminary results are promising.

One intervention in math assessed children’s geometry learning using either a traditional teaching method compared to a more active teaching method. The traditional method used a cognitive-only approach that focused on teaching children geometry concepts using diagrams on paper while students listened to lessons. The active teaching method included children acting out geometric shapes with their bodies or using shapes in physical games. Results showed that children in the active teaching group scored higher on geometric knowledge assessments than children in the traditional teaching method group

These findings, while not widespread, illustrate the ways in which children’s motor and cognitive processes are linked. Especially among young children, it is becoming more and more clear that motor development (via physical activity) is reciprocally linked to cognitive development. Young children need certain motor skills in order to interact with the world in such a way as to promote their cognitive development. The two, it seems, are inextricably linked

Therefore, it is not surprising to see how the benefits of a teaching method that combines both physical and cognitive aspects of learning are even among older children. Although perhaps more challenging to implement, the opportunity to provide children with physically active ways of learning concepts might provide a “win-win” method for children.

Physical Activity

Physical activity matters for mental health

Do you ever go for a walk to clear your head or go for a run after a particularly hard day at work? Inherently we know that physical activity makes us feel better, not just physically but often emotionally as well. The same goes for children. While the benefits of physical activity for learning and academics are clear, children’s mental health is equally important. Strong evidence points to a connection between physical activity and children’s mental well-being.

In a large review of studies, researchers found that children and adolescents who are physically active have lower levels of depression, stress, and psychological distress. This finding was especially prominent among adolescents. Furthermore, physical activity was also linked to qualities of mental well-being like positive self-image, and life satisfaction

While this finding is perhaps not surprising to most parents, what might be more compelling is that the reverse situation also seems to be supported by research as well. In other words, children who are more sedentary tend to have higher rates of psychological problems (e.g., depression) and lower levels of psychological well-being. Not only does physical activity seem to enhance children’s mental well-being but a lack of it may actually lead to mental health challenges. This issue becomes especially important as children move into adolescence. The research shows that physical activity tends to decline in children from ages 12 to 16. Most of this decline is due to a tapering off of “light activity” such as cleaning house, casual walking, etc. The encouraging news for parents is that the level of activity needed to help maintain children’s mental health doesn’t mean long intense workouts or training sessions. Scholars find that even an additional hour of light activity per day (especially between ages 12-16) was linked to an 8-11% decrease in depression score. Thus, even small strides in helping children stay more active like going for walks, doing chores, or playing active games can aid children’s mental health.

With the prevalence of various forms of media, video games and television, keeping children physically active can be challenging for many parents. The lure of screen-based entertainment often leads children to becoming more sedentary, especially as they reach adolescence. For children to truly thrive, both cognitively and emotionally, however, physical activity is a must. Parents can help children stay active by not only discussing its brain-boosting benefits but by modeling an active lifestyle themselves. Don’t shy away from taking your children on walks, starting up an impromptu dance party in the living room, or playing an active game outside. All these simple, enjoyable activities can not only help you connect with your children but keep the whole family fit and healthy as well.

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Preview blurb: We all know that books and lessons help children’s brains but what about physical activity? Keeping children active in today’s tech-driven world can be a challenge but the benefits are amazing. Learn why getting your children up and active can help not only their bodies but their minds. Psst…these ideas might even inspire YOU to get more active too!

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

Amy Webb, Ph.D.

Amy is a parenting writer who is passionate about bringing child development research into the lives of parents so they can use it to inform their decision-making. In her writing she brings together her research background as well as real-life experience as a mom to two rambunctious boys. When she’s not reading (parenting books or mystery novels) she enjoys hiking, cooking, and watching her sons play hours and hours of baseball. 

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